Sibling Rivalry: One On One Time

Gentle Parenting Sibling Rivalry

I frequently see the recommendation of one-on-one time on the gentle parenting forums, as a response to any difficulties people are having with their children. ‘When you have a new child, you should ensure frequent one-on-one time with your children.’ By this, they mean taking the child out somewhere exciting and doing an activity away from the family. I always took the comment with a pinch of salt until I read it mentioned in The Good Enough Parent recently too. Reading it from The School of Life has caused me to reconsider my views on the one-on-one time recommendation.

Background to Our Children’s One-One-One Time

Due to lack of a support network and my husband working too many hours, we weren’t able to do any one-on-one time when the twins arrived. One forum I used to be part of constantly recommended more one-on-one time for pretty much any sibling issues. Other forums also seem to recommend it when a child is having a tough time with their sibling, or showing sibling rivalry. So I asked that forum of like-minded parents: What’s the importance of one-on-one time?

My question still remains unanswered as there was just one reply to my question. Another mother said she was following my post as she was in the same shoes. If there’s no answer to the importance of it, then perhaps it’s just one of those things people have done, without any scientific backing. Or perhaps it was evolved from a useful recommendation but has been wrongly interpreted by many parents over the years.

I’m sure special one-on-one time must work for many, especially if you have just one child or 2 with wider age gaps. Otherwise, why would so many parents recommend it? Let’s look at the possible benefits and possible drawbacks of one-on-one time.

Benefits of One-On-One Time

I could not find much official research done on the benefits of one-to-one regularly with a child. I can imagine:

  • One-on-one time can offer a personalised experience with the child to help you get to know each other without other siblings influencing the relationship.
  • If one child has an interest in something that the others don’t, then taking them alone to it can allow their siblings to continue with their interests.
  • If siblings have a wider age gap, and a younger child gets frequent one-on-one time with the caregiver, it may feel fair to offer one-on-one time with other children.
  • An older child may find they need private conversations about school struggles for example, and may only feel free to do that without others around.

Drawbacks of One-On-One Time

I did see one Mum at the park the other week with her 2 year old. The toddler spent the whole time screaming on the floor that she wanted to go with Daddy and the baby. The Mum was clearly finding their daughter’s response tough, and the young child was clearly finding scheduled separation from Daddy and baby too difficult. I guess it could end up with both parties feeling ‘not good enough’. The child may feel the Dad didn’t want to have her there, and the Mum may feel the child prefers to be with Daddy. What good was that for either of their bonding?

I imagine enforced one on one time could contribute to sibling rivalry. For example, that little baby gets to spend time with fun Daddy once a week, even if the toddler gets to be with him alternate weeks. Or that time you took brother to the theme park – you never took me. Or when you did take me to the same place, a week later, there wasn’t the one off Mickey Mouse for me to enjoy like my sister did. All of that combined could even could cause anxiety in the unpreferred parent along the lines of ‘even when I offer them an exciting activity, they don’t want anything to do with me and they still want the other parent!’.

On a personal related point, when I was around 12 years old, my Mum took me one-on-one to Paris. Part of me wondered ‘why’, but the other part thought, cool a trip to France, I won’t say no! Many years later during a casual conversation, my Mum mentioned that it was my Dad’s stupid idea to encourage us to bond. It was a total disaster. I just remember my Mum being really angry at me as I was incapable of remembering to pack important medication for my diabetes. Put it this way, would we have had an amazing time with all 4 of us on that holiday? No doubt. The stress of the situation would have been much less with the second adult there, instead of the stress being dumped on me. And we could have ebbed and flowed between who got to spend time with Mum or Dad, or the whole family, dependent on our desires at that moment in time.

Can You Feel Love With Others Around

My final point questioning the importance of one-on-one time. Two people can fall in love in a crowded room but just focus on each other’s gaze and conversation. They don’t need to be anywhere isolated, they just need to take notice of each other to realise how much they adore each other and want to spend more time together. That connection process can be with others or alone. I guess the same can be applied to children. As long as you’re able to hear your child’s excitement or woes, and see your child for who they are, it can’t matter that other people surround your conversation and enjoyment of life together.

Also on that point about lovers being around others. If those lovers were also in a relationship with another partner, I imagine there would be a higher risk of envy when one of those partners goes out for quality time away from the family home. That would be regardless of whether you were offered a similar experience another time. When those lovers come back with their exciting stories and lit-up faces, you’d feel less special or disappointed that you missed out. Viewing it like that, little children may be at an equal, if not greater, risk of feeling envy when their siblings have frequent one-on-one time away. This may then increase the risk of sibling rivalry.

Redifining One-On-One Time

Even though I haven’t done any scheduled or exciting one-on-one time with any of my kids, their Dad spent some one-on-one time with our children. He takes them to the shop as a means of letting them have some exposure to shopping, without being overwhelmed with 3 toddlers in that environment. Turns are taken for each child going to the shop, to prevent them from feeling envy at one always being chosen. It’s also exciting for toddlers to visit the shop, especially post COVID. It may not be a theme park adventure, but it’s exciting for them and hasn’t caused any sibling rivarly.

Our children also frequently get my undivided attention if they seek it. For example, I’ll read them books individually or together. Bedtimes for over a year have been 1:1, so they do get daily focused Mummy time, without sibling interference.

Just in case you’re reading this with a newborn… or 2 or 3… it wasn’t always the case that I could offer them regular one-on-one time at all. It just grew as they grew bigger and more able to entertain themselves for a certain time. I imagine that as they grow to bigger children and teenagers that perhaps it would become appropriate for one parent to take one child to a club or activity which the other 2 children aren’t interested in.

Therefore, I have decided to define one-on-one time as follows:

When you are caring for more than one child, it may be important to offer each person frequent personal and quality time. This will usually happen naturally, through responding to a child’s needs, for example holding that child as they cry. Providing you ensure each child feels equally important as the other people in the household, and that there is no preferred treatment of one over another, one-on-one time should enable important connections and memories to be made between two people. Some families choose to do this out of the home environment and away from other family members, whereas it is fine, and possibly beneficial, to also do that within the home environment.

The most common questions causing parents to consider offering increased 1:1 time tends to be due to a heightened amount of sibling rivalry, or a struggling connection from the child or the parent. There are more parenting decisions to make than solely the quantity or quality of one-on-one time, which will be discussed below.

What Else ‘To Do’ To Reduce Sibling Rivalry

Sibling rivalry comes from brothers or sisters competing for connection with the same person. That’s why my instincts tell me to avoid increasing that tension with taking away the sibling they’re struggling with on an exciting trip out. That feels like rubbing salt in the wounds. Some example alternative suggestions to avoid sibling anxiety include:

  • Avoid enforced sharing since this means constantly choosing / preferring one child over another.
  • Avoid praise, as not only does praise reduce a child’s intrinsic motivation, you may make onlooking siblings feel inadequate compared to the praised child.
  • Avoid admiring one child’s works and achievements more than another. It is best to approach responding to children’s work as recognising the child’s emotion in it, rather than on showing that you’re impressed with it personally. For example “ohhh, I see how much you enjoyed that…” rather than “ohhh I loved that so much!”. In a similar way to the praise point above, onlooking children can also then see their sibling’s enjoyment and, since it has zero impact on their parent’s personal emotion levels, it is less likely to make them feel that their own relationship is threatened.
  • Take note of when your child is asking for attention in the home envrionment or when out with the family. Give them that attention if possible.
  • Listen to your child’s concerns about their sibling. Don’t take sides. A parent’s calm presence will take them much further than if you join in with any battles.
  • Don’t ask the children things like “just get on, will you!” / “please be nice to each other!” / “all I want is for you to take care of each other…”. / “if you can’t play nicely together, then I’ll take that away.” All of this applies a pressure which is not even comparable to how our relationships are as adults. There should be no pressure or burden to ‘get on because you’re brothers and sisters’. We won’t always like everybody we love, and that’s ok too.

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